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The Importance of Sangha Part 2

The Importance of Sangha Part 2

We learn from sangha when our ideas are challenged – and the most important ideas that get challenged in the midst of Sangha are ideas about Sangha.


Challenging and Clarifying Our Understanding

Even if you’re a really self-disciplined person and don’t need others to keep your practice strong, and even if you feel you can learn everything you want to know about Buddhism from books, there are still important reasons to practice with Sangha. The first of these is that our ideas about practice get challenged when we encounter teachers, peers, and people who have been practicing longer or more intensively that we have. It’s like attending a class on something; through the interactions with others and by engaging the material in a social situation, we’re exposed to new ways of looking at things.

We may think we’ve understood a teaching or practice but then find out our ideas are incorrect or incomplete. When we’re questioned by a teacher or Sangha member and try to give an answer that reflects our understanding and experience, we may struggle for words and realize we haven’t clarified something for ourselves as much as we thought we had. Even coming up with a question is a valuable process, as we have to look inward and find the edge of our understanding.

Frequently, the questions and experiences of others in the Sangha – whether seniors, peers, or newcomers – helps us realize something. It’s amazing how often I say something over and over as a teacher, but a student won’t really get it until another Sangha member says more or less the same thing, but in different words and from a different perspective. Overall, participating with other people in Buddhist study and practice can teach us a lot.


Accepting We’re All Just Ordinary Beings

However, in case you hear this and expect Sangha discussions to always be deep and edifying, I should point out that the most important ideas that get challenged in the midst of Sangha are ideas about Sangha. That is, ideas about how Buddhist practitioners should think and act – including ourselves. Sometimes people feel disappointed when they first participate in Sangha because these supposed Buddhists don’t seem to have very deep understanding, or they’re still rather opinionated, rude, or oblivious when they communicate. Sangha members may reveal weaknesses, mistakes, problems, confusion, and doubt – and these things can make us doubt the efficacy of the Buddhist path, or deflate the hope we had that Buddhism would solve all of our problems and quickly make us into gracious, enlightened beings.

I had been part of a Sangha for a year or two and was hard-core into Zen when I overheard someone ask one of the senior practitioners, “How have you been?” The senior was a woman I admired who had practicing for 10 years or so, and she responded, “I’ve been awful!” I was surprised, confused, and disappointed – how could someone who had been practicing for 10 years feel awful?!

After many years, I realized and accepted the fact that Buddhist practice doesn’t relieve us of our humanity. We still make mistakes, have weaknesses, and encounter problems. We still feel, from time to time, sad, depressed, confused, and discouraged – but practice lets us see that we are larger than these experiences; they come and go, and don’t define who we are. We learn to face our issues head-on rather than distract ourselves or live in denial. We become more honest with ourselves and others. We accept ourselves and our humanity, and ironically taste enlightenment as we do so.

In the context of Sangha, this is what we should look for: Humble people who are working hard, not people who are already perfect. As the 18th century Japanese Zen master Hakuin wrote, “As with water and ice, there is no ice without water; apart from sentient beings, there are no Buddhas.”[1] We may hold an ideal of Buddhahood that contrasts greatly with the imperfect, fallible people we encounter – but Buddhas are nothing other than imperfect, fallible people who have awakened!


[1] “The Song of Zazen” by By Hakuin Ekaku Zenji (


The Importance of Sangha (the Buddhist Community) Part 1

The Importance of Sangha (the Buddhist Community) Part 1

When I first got interested in Zen Buddhism and meditation, I did some reading and learned about the so-called “Three Treasures” of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. (I talked about the Three Treasures in Episode 2 of the Zen Studies Podcast.) The “Buddha” made sense to me – the teacher Shakyamuni who lived 2,500 years ago, and at another level the wisdom inside of us. The “Dharma” made sense too: That’s the teachings and practices of Buddhism, or truth itself.

What about the “Sangha,” though? That’s the community of Buddhist practitioners. Was the treasure of Sangha really necessary? Was it important to get together with others to practice Buddhism? I associated groups of spiritual or religious people – fairly or not – with all kinds of negative things: prejudice, conformism, judgementalism, cults… Just a few years before I got into Zen, I had told a friend, “If I ever get into an organized religion, shoot me!”

Still, because I found the teachings of Buddhism so fascinating and helpful, and because I really liked meditation, I decided to give Sangha a shot. I looked up “Buddhist Churches” in the phone book (I realize this dates me!) and visited a couple local groups. The third one I attended felt like home, and despite my prior biases I have been intimately involved with Sanghas ever since.

In this series of blog posts, I’ll try to explain why Sangha is so important in Zen or Buddhist practice.

To begin:


The Full Buddhist Tradition Is Conveyed Through Sangha

The existence of Sangha is what makes Buddhism a living, applied spiritual tradition rather than a mere philosophy. I encountered all kinds of inspiring concepts, ideals, and philosophies before I became a Buddhist. As a teen, I read and re-read Thoreau’s Walden, and in college I was impressed with the Stoic philosophers. However, what was I supposed to do with these ideas other than just think about them? I could try to apply them to my life, I suppose, but translating them into action wasn’t so easy.

When I encountered Buddhism, it was different. After I read about Buddhist ideas and philosophy, I could try the practices of meditation and mindfulness and see what changes they made in my life. Even further, I could attend a local Sangha where I could learn from and question a real, live, trained teacher – someone who put Buddhist teachings into modern language, and could recommend how to apply them to everyday life. I could encounter other people who aspired to the same thing I did, and learn from their experience.

There’s only so much you can learn from books, especially when you’re talking about a spiritual practice that has the potential to transform your life. The Buddhist tradition has countless aspects that can’t be conveyed in a book, including the personal and dynamic interactions between teacher and student, learning how to move your body according to traditional forms that are meant to foster mindfulness and concern for others, and the emotionally nurturing power of ritual. This is the first important function of Sangha: it carries and conveys the many components of the Buddhist tradition that can’t be shared through writing.


Sangha Provides Positive Peer Pressure

Even apart from the Buddhist teachings and practices a Sangha can expose you to, participating with a Sangha is valuable. Why? Human beings are social creatures – even the introverts and misanthropes among us! We depend on and influence one another. The presence and positive support of other people is what helps us fulfill our aspirations – and form those aspirations to begin with. I like to call this kind of beneficial social influence on one another “positive peer pressure.”

For example, the course of your life was deeply affected by whether your parents were your greatest fans, or your greatest critics. If you’re surrounded by positive, healthy people, it’s whole lot easier to avoid negative behaviors like abusing drugs or wallowing in depression. No matter how convinced we are that more exercise would be good for us, most of us find it easier to actually do it if we attend a yoga class or join a gym.

Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha emphasized that associating with what he called “admirable people” was essential to our success in practice. He defined “admirable people” as wise practitioners who are firm in their conviction spiritual practice is important, and are strong in virtue, generosity, and discernment.[i] The following is a famous passage from the Pali Upaddha Sutta (note: in this passage, the Buddha is called “the Blessed One”):

“…Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, ‘This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.’


“‘Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.”[ii]

You may or may not relate to needing the support of others in order to do a challenging practice or change your habits. Maybe you’re an unusually self-disciplined person. However, if you do find that your spiritual aspirations wane when you try to fulfill them on your own, know you’re not the only one! Modern Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that, in his tradition, people say “when a tiger leaves the mountain and goes to the lowland, it will be caught by humans and killed. When practitioners leave their Sangha, they will abandon their practice after a few months.”[iii] Thich Nhat Hanh and many other teachers and practitioners maintain that it’s much easier to practice with a Sangha than by yourself.

Keep the value of positive peer support in mind if you find yourself wondering whether your presence in a particular Sangha matters! Even if you value Sangha, it’s easy to figure it will go on without you if you’re busy and don’t attend for a while. That assumption is probably true, but your presence with Sangha is an act of generosity even if you don’t have a special role there. It supports others by adding energy and momentum to the collective experience, inspiring others through positive peer pressure. [more to come…]

[i] “Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta: To Dighajanu” (AN 8.54), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
[ii]“Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)” (SN 45.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
[iii] From Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities (2002) by Thich Nhat Hanh, reprinted with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, at


Instructions for Zazen in Eight Verses – Explained

Sit in a balanced, stable position with your spine erect.
Body and mind are one and posture is dynamic; proper sitting requires your full attention.

Instructions for physical posture may seem uninteresting or elementary because we conceive of our minds and bodies being separate. To meditate, we figure all we need to do is to get our body into some relatively comfortable position, and then leave it there like a lump of clay while we engage some “meditative technique” with our minds.

However, our practice is shikantaza, which means “nothing but precisely sitting.” Wholehearted sitting is our meditative technique. It challenges us to drop artificial, conceptual distinctions between the “I” who is meditating, the “mind” I am disciplining, and the “body” I am paying attention to in order to discipline the mind. I, mind, and body are all experiential aspects of one Being, who is taking a profoundly significant posture: upright, still, dignified, ready, open, and forgoing either grasping or aversion.

When we sit wholeheartedly, it is actually a rich experience. The appropriate posture can only be maintained with gentle, continued awareness of the body. Sights, sounds, smells, inner sensations, thoughts, and feelings are all part of our sitting. However, we try to keep our awareness on our experience as a whole, instead of being caught up in one aspect of it.

Be alert and appreciative, because your life may end tomorrow and everything you love is changing.

Imagine how you would feel if you really knew your life was going to end tomorrow. You’d probably pay alert, appreciative attention to whatever you were experiencing, even if all you were doing is sitting still and breathing! Even when you encountered things you would ordinarily find annoying or unpleasant, you’d probably be happy simply to be alive to experience them.

Contemplating impermanence is a traditional Buddhist way of motivating yourself to pay attention to the present moment, and it’s not meant to be depressing or anxiety-producing. If this line of the Eight Verses causes these reactions in you, just skip it. However, see if you can contemplate the implications of impermanence in this moment, as opposed to worrying about when and how the inevitable changes will come. You will not always have this opportunity to breathe, to hear the sound of the rain, to see the face of your friend…

Energized by not-knowing, devote yourself to the sacred act of being present for each moment without agenda.

We think we know. We know what’s going to happen next, who we are, who our partner is, what we like, and what the world is like. Our sense of knowing is based on conclusions we have drawn based on past experience. These conclusions allow us to predict things, make sense of things, and maintain a sense of control over our lives. This knowing also cuts us off from engaging our experience in an open, fresh, intimate, curious way.

Imagine you were sitting zazen and knew that at some point during your meditation period, someone might burst into the room and deliver news you were eagerly (or nervously) awaiting. Wouldn’t you be energized by the natural inclination to listen to each sound and ask, “Is that it? Are they coming?”

Challenge your habit of tuning out your present experience because you think you know what’s going to happen, or because what’s happening isn’t entertaining, pleasurable, or directly relevant to your plans. Your life, just as it is, is precious. Each day that passes is one you will never experience again. Motivated by your deep love of life, make an effort to be present for each moment, regardless of how it serves your self-interest. Because life itself is sacred (that is, worthy of reverence and respect), zazen can be an act of devotion.

Do not brace yourself against thoughts or feelings; simply sit wholeheartedly and they will come and go like clouds in a clear sky.

When we are caught up in thoughts and feelings, we are not doing zazen. At the same time, we can’t avoid getting caught up in thoughts and feelings by employing ordinary means. We are only further caught as soon as we latch on to conceptual divisions and tensions: “me” (trying to meditate) versus “my mind” (chasing thoughts), “good me” (aiming for spiritual growth) versus “lazy, stupid me” (who just wants to rehash the plot of a TV show during meditation), or “holy activity” (such as being present this moment) versus “mindless activity” (being caught up in thoughts).

Zazen asks us to adopt a radical stance of nonviolence, nonjudgment, and loving acceptance. The practice is to let go not just of our previous thoughts, but also any reaction we might have to having been caught up in thinking. As we return to “nothing but precisely sitting,” forgetting about everything that came before, there is an extremely precious moment of stillness before we get carried off into thought again. The more completely and wholeheartedly you forget about the previous moment and return to sitting, the longer and deeper the precious moment of presence will become.

Do not struggle against forgetfulness; the instant you awaken, be grateful and throw away past and future.

The forgetfulness referred to in this verse is not the act of forgetting (or letting go) talked about above. Forgetfulness is getting so caught up in thoughts and feelings you completely forget that you’re even doing zazen. You lose the thread of your intention entirely, and follow a train of thought so long that whatever you’re thinking about takes on much more an air of reality than your immediate physical surroundings.

How can you stop this from happening? You can’t, at least not directly. After all, how do you remember when you’ve totally forgotten? How do you wake up when you’re asleep? You just do. Things run their course, change, and you suddenly realize, “Oh yeah, I’m sitting zazen.” It’s important to make this instant of awakening as positive and fruitful as you can: Be grateful that it happened and just return to sitting, as described in the comments on the previous verse. If you respond to your instant of awakening with frustration, disappointment, judgment, or by evaluating your zazen, you will only make moments of waking up less likely to happen!

How can you get better at zazen if you’re not supposed to do anything about mind wandering and forgetfulness except forget about them and return to just sitting? You arouse greater passion for being present, as described in the third and fourth verses, or you explore the next two verses with great curiosity and determination.

Sink below the level of thinking and be aware of your direct experience, realizing it can never be grasped, but flows endlessly.

We can’t fight getting caught up in thinking directly, but we can turn our attention to our faculty of awareness. We are aware of our direct experience in a way that is utterly independent of discriminative thinking. Below your mental efforts to parse things out, describe, differentiate, understand, predict, and judge, you are aware of your body, sensations, perceptions, and thoughts. This awareness is ever-present, silent, and intimate. It is the medium within which we navigate as living beings, even when we’re preoccupied with our mental chatter. When we remember what’s below the level of thinking, we recognize we’re much bigger than we think we are.

It’s important to remember, though, that being “aware of your direct experience” is not a place to stop, or something to be achieved because it will deliver a reward. “Ah, I’m aware of my direct experience, now what?” Our direct experience – our life – is a flow, and “being aware of our direct experience” is the way to be intimately alive, moment after moment. It is its own reward.

Settle into your true nature: boundless, selfless, joyous, and ready to respond with wisdom and compassion.

At the same time, once you really, truly stop looking for anything else – once you stop expecting anything else to happen, once you’re really doing “nothing but precisely sitting” – the whole universe opens up to you. This is not because zazen is a method by which you work yourself into a special state where it’s possible to achieve insight. Rather, this is because when you’re doing zazen, you’re no longer separating yourself from reality and you can see it clearly.

If you know, from personal experience, that your true nature is boundless, selfless, joyous, and ready to respond skillfully to whatever happens, this verse serves as a reminder not to forget. If you don’t yet have a sense of being boundless, selfless, joyous, and ready, this verse is not meant to discourage you by pointing out spiritual goodies you don’t yet have. Instead, it’s meant to inspire you to summon the courage and passion to look beyond what you think you know, and surrender yourself more completely to the practice of zazen.

Click here for a printable copy of the Instructions for Zazen in Eight Verses, along with instructions for how to use them in your meditation.

Provocative Zen Teachers

Some Zen teachers are pussy cats, and some are tigers. Some are emphatic, some are ambiguous, some are dogmatic, and some eschew all dogma. Which Zen teachers are right?

When you are still searching for a teacher to trust, this may feel like a very important question. You are probably drawn to a particular kind of teacher, but you may also have doubts and feel drawn to more than one kind. The teacher at your local Zen center, for example, may present himself as a spiritual friend who can help you find your own way, and who responds to Dharma questions with phrases like, “In my practice, I have found…” This may put you at ease around the teacher, but make you doubt the depth of his Dharma. Another teacher you encounter may present a much stronger and clearer picture of the True Dharma and How to Realize It; she may state things in absolutes, provoking you but also inspiring you. 

It’s important to realize that no single Zen teacher holds the entire Dharma, and every teaching style has strengths and weaknesses. A relatively informal, laid back teacher can make it clear to her students that they ultimately have to find their own path, but she may also fail to motivate her students enough. When the Dharma is presented as a method to improve your life, and is the subject of open, round-table discussions, you may end up thinking there’s not all that much to it. The fact that it is also an urgent matter of life and death can be missed. On the other hand, provocative and charismatic Zen teachers can inspire emulation instead of real practice in their students. They can inadvertently discourage authenticity, or inspire a cult of personality focused on the teacher and his special relationship to the truth.

Still, Zen teachers who dare to take a stand can help wake you up. Zen master Lin-chi said, “Students these days haven’t the slightest comprehension of the Dharma. They’re like sheep poking with their noses – whatever they happen on they immediately put in their mouths.”1 This sounds harsh and judgmental, but it makes you think about whether this is true for you. Have you really understood the teaching you are accepting? Dogen said, “Even if you hope to live for seventy or eighty years, in the end you are destined to die. You should regard your pleasure and sorrow, relationship, and attachment in worldly affairs as your enemy… You should keep in mind the buddha way alone and work for the bliss of nirvana.”2 Yikes, aren’t we supposed to enjoy our lives? And yet, perhaps you are letting precious time slip away without making a diligent effort to fulfill your deepest aspirations and resolve your deepest doubts.  

Modern teachers can be provocative, too. Kodo Sawaki roshi said, “Everyone steeps himself in his own life and lives, blindly believing that there must be something to his daily activity. But in reality, a human being’s life does not differ from a swallow’s, the males collecting food and the females hatching eggs.”3 This may sound like a bleak view of humanity, but if was stated more gently, would you deeply contemplate in what way this is true? While most Zen teachers want to encourage everyone and present almost all Buddhist practices as part of a smorgasbord of options, some will tell you frankly that if you don’t become a monk, or spend thousands of hours in meditation retreats, or have an awakening experience, you are very unlikely to be able to experience the Truth for yourself. Which teachers are right?

Actually, most Zen teachers are right, in the sense that they are honestly and earnestly expressing the Dharma as they understand it, and as they manifest it as an individual. When you become a Zen teacher, you realize that it’s not really up to you how you express the Dharma. You just speak, and act, and your Dharma message comes out with a particular flavor. Any teacher can and should become more skillful and humble over time, but an informal, approachable teacher is not going to be able to be a fierce, charismatic, provocative teacher even if she wants to be, and vice versa. A teacher’s primary duty is to be completely him or herself, and to bravely express the Dharma as he or she experiences it. 

The best approach as a student is to appreciate all the different kinds of Zen teachers for what they have to offer you. The Dharma is richer, and the Sangha benefits, from teachers across the spectrum from mild mannered to fiery. For example, when I tell you that liberation is accessible to you even if you are busy with your family and have little time to sit zazen, I mean it. It is not my way to harangue you about how essential it is to dive into the furnace of meditation retreats; I don’t think saying that would be helpful. It will only make you feel separated from “real” practice – and liberation is, indeed, available to you right now. When and if you are drawn to retreats, you will go. However, I am glad there are other teachers out there who will shout at you, “Wake up! You’re wasting your time!” There is truth in their Dharma, too.

Watson, Burton, trans. The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993
Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans. Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2000
3 Uchiyama, Kosho. The Zen Teaching of "Homeless" Kodo. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto Soto-Zen Center, 1990

Zen: Secular or Religious?

In this essay I want to discuss religious versus secular  – secular meaning not religious – in the context of Zen, with respect to how these things are subjectively experienced, and how they affect your spiritual practice. However, before I do that I have to define a couple terms. After all, language describes our experience, but if we don’t examine our language we can actually limit our awareness of our experience.

To begin, let’s define spiritual as I just used it in the term “spiritual practice.” This word, for better or worse, has come to refer to the “pure” or popularly acceptable aspects of religion, such as morality or an interest in life’s deeper meaning. However, the word has implications that are completely inappropriate in Zen, including the idea that you possess an intangible, animating “spirit” inside your physical manifestation. Spiritual can also imply that there is an incorporeal “spirit world” existing alongside the physical one you occupy; Zen is completely agnostic about this matter, claiming instead that there are much more important things to worry about. Neither of these definitions of spiritual are appropriate for use in Zen.  However, there is one more definition that I believe suits Zen’s purposes: of, or relating to, the sacred.

Now we have to define sacred for a Zen context. Essentially, something that is sacred is worthy of veneration – that is, inspired respect or awe. It is important to note that veneration is an experience of being inspired, not an act of obeisance that is imposed. People often feel things are sacred because they are connected with, or related to, God, or because the things are associated with their religious faith. However, it is also possible to feel respect or awe for the natural world, or for a system of practice that has freed you from suffering. In Zen, there is a great deal that is sacred; in fact, Zen encourages you to see everything as sacred. But more on that later.

So, let’s return to the question of whether (and in what way) Zen is religious or secular. There is no consensus out there as to exactly what religion means or is, so I’ll deal with this question by offering a number of things you are likely to assume are included in any particular religion, and then discussing whether (and in what way) that particular thing manifests in Zen – and therefore, where Zen falls on the spectrum between religious and secular.

Belief in and/or worship of a superhuman or supernatural being (or beings), who has some measure of influence over your life and well-being, and/or to whom you owe your existence. If this defines religion for you, then Zen is undeniably secular. Zen doesn’t oppose or deny the existence of God, or gods, or supernatural beings, so if you believe in them you are still welcome to practice Zen. However, Zen is not dependent on the existence of such beings, and is generally unconcerned about them. This may sound strange – not really caring whether God exists or not – but it reflects the reality of life for many people, who find it very difficult to believe in God, and who do not anticipate being able to verify his/her/its existence in this lifetime. Personally, I believe that if there is a God and I meet him in the afterlife, he will forgive my disbelief. I did my best.

Belief in a spirit or soul that dwells within and animates your body. In this case Zen is wholeheartedly secular, actually teaching you do not have a soul. It even teaches that believing you have an inherent essence is the root of many of your problems. However, the nature of our existence is very complex and subtle, so the Zen take is not as bleak as it might seem. It’s not that we either have a soul, or we are just organic machines with a delusion of importance. Even though Zen teaches there is no soul, it emphasizes that when you completely drop your self-concern, there is no real separation between you and the rest of the universe. You partake of universal being without having to possess your own particular parcel of it.

A system of morality. While people expect a religion to have a moral code, many people do not feel that you have to have a religion in order to have a system of morality. So, in this case, Zen could be called secular or religious in the fact that it has a moral code (many people don’t realize this; Zen’s moral guidelines are called the precepts). However, from a Zen point of view, the moral feeling or intuition that arises in secular people is evidence of the deep universal truths of interdependence and no-self. It is not arbitrary that most people end up with moral feelings and a general desire to do good and not harm. In this sense you might say Zen is religious in viewing morality as being inspired by something deeper and more universal than personal choice – although Zen does not see it as being inspired by God(s).

A set of practices and/or principles. Zen definitely has lots of practices and principles; you could study it full time for a lifetime and never come to the end of them. This fact doesn’t really make Zen religious or secular. Religions have sets of practices and principles, but so do professions, and the arts. However, “religious” principles and practices are often given a special weight by the people who ascribe to them, compared to the principles and practices of other disciplines. This is usually because they are held to be universally applicable to all people, or because they are the instructions and teachings of a divine being. In this case, Zen falls more on the secular side. You can engage whatever Zen practices and principles you want to, but none of them are a moral obligation (except basic morality itself), and nobody’s keeping track of what you do or don’t do. You verify for yourself the truth or utility of what Zen offers.

An institution created by humans and passed down through time.  Religions typically include traditions, organizations, sectarian definitions, buildings, professional religious people or teachers, and a sense of group identity. Although religious groups tend to split and evolve, at any given time a particular religion usually has a relatively stable sense of itself, its history, and its future. Some secular disciplines and organizations are similar (such as the martial arts, or fraternal orders), but the sense of belonging to an institution (large or small) generally reaches its most potent in the case of religion. There are certainly substantial institutions related to Zen that include all of the components listed above. However, there is a certain ambivalence in Zen toward its own institutions: they are viewed as being useful in a practical sense, but it is acknowledged that they can end up demanding so much time, attention, resources and allegiance that you can lose track of the essence of Zen: the practice and study itself. In this sense Zen is religious in having institutions to which you can belong, but it leans toward the secular in seeing institutions as being somewhat of a necessary evil. The persistent classic standard is that of a Zen master meditating all alone in a cave until others join him. You don’t need any stuff in order to do Zen practice.

A community of practitioners. Generally speaking, one of the main things that differentiates a religion from a philosophy is that a group of people regularly gather to study and practice the activities and principles associated with a religion, but not a philosophy. In this sense Zen is very religious. From the time Buddhism began 2500 years ago, a strong emphasis has been placed on the importance of a community of practitioners, or sangha. As a matter of fact, according to traditional Buddhist teachings, you can’t practice Buddhism without others. Well, technically you can, but you won’t get very far. This is not a judgment about your inadequacy, or a suggestion that the truth can only be obtained from others. According to Zen, you already have everything you need. However… human beings are social creatures, and Zen practice is very demanding. To bring your inner potential to its full fruition requires interaction with other people, particularly with others trying to study and practice the same thing you are.

Ritual and ceremony. Ritual and ceremony are powerful tools for influencing your behavior and accessing your emotions. Rituals engage the body and move you out of an intellectual, discriminative state into a more contemplative, intuitive, and less defended state. Their use is not limited to religion: think of award ceremonies, secular funerals, and even personal rituals you might have in your life. However, ritual and ceremony are usually at their most highly developed and overt in religious settings, and in this sense Zen can be quite religious. The tradition includes some very elaborate and moving ceremonies, as well as countless simple rituals to be performed by individuals, like putting your shoes straight or picking up items with both hands. Once again, however, ritual and ceremony are viewed in Zen as tools – very useful tools, but not inherently sacred. You may end up feeling they are sacred, but this is only because of what they point to or help you access, not because the activities themselves are any more holy or special than feeding your child or brushing your teeth.

Presentation of the sacred. Again, the sacred is something worthy of veneration – that is, worthy of inspiring your respect and awe. All worthwhile religions make presentation of the sacred central to their missions – helping you remember, understand, access, appreciate, honor and manifest it. This is what Huston Smith calls the “more” in his book Why Religion Matters, where he says, “Built into the human makeup is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite.” Smith explains that religion has traditionally addressed this longing.   The fact that presentation of the sacred is central in Zen is something many people find surprising. Essentially, if you do Zen practice and achieve some of your goals by doing so, that’s great – but if you still miss the sacred, it’s considered quite a shame, so in this sense Zen is quite religious.  The “sacred” doesn’t have to be woo-woo, supernatural, or even make you feel overly emotional. You touch it through direct, unfiltered experience of your own human life – and Zen practitioners throughout history have discovered  that when you do that, it is impossible not to be inspired with respect and awe. Your morning cup of coffee and encountering traffic on the way to work are both sacred – but how often can you experience them that way?

So, the answer to the question of whether Zen is religious or secular is a classically Zen one: yes and no. You may want to be able to put something into a category and subsequently stop having to think about it so much, but Zen wants you to continue to think and question – so no simple answers here.

What’s the Good of Zen Teachers?

Why, in a tradition like Buddhism in which you are supposed to verify everything for yourself, is there such an emphasis on Teachers?

In Zen our relationships to teachers are complex and multilayered. Relationships with teachers, whether brief and informal or long-term and committed, are every bit as complex, nuanced and varied as any of our human relationships. Every teacher-student relationship is different. Like our other relationships, they can be supportive, rewarding, instructive, challenging, frustrating, painful and ambiguous. Like those other relationships, the teacher-student relationship can be transformative.

Unlike our other relationships, however, the teacher-student one is explicitly based in, and in service of, Dharma practice. As we go deeply into a relationship with a teacher, the relationship can also become a koan for us – a thorny, elusive, apparently paradoxical matter that cannot be understood or explained with the discursive mind but can be understood and appreciated through personal experience.


At the simplest level, a teacher provides guidance. The teacher is a senior, someone who has walked the path before us and can advise us how to do so ourselves.

To some extent this is like learning any discipline, in that we turn for instructions to people who know the discipline. Learning from a person who knows their stuff trumps learning from a book anytime. Zen practice is a full experience of body and mind; you wouldn’t think to become a doctor or an aikido master by reading and practicing on your own, would you?

Zen teachers guide us in meditation practice (zazen), in applying the precepts to our lives, in strengthening our practice, in study of the teachings, and in learning how to take a “Zen” approach in any given situation. We primarily get this instruction by meeting with teachers in sanzen and practice discussion, but also through interactions over meals, during ceremonies, social situations, work, etc. Much Zen instruction just takes place through time and proximity to the teacher and other practitioners. There is much happening in our practice below the surface, at the subconscious or unconscious levels, and much of it simply takes time to develop and ripen.

An obvious question is, “How good is this teacher?” To some extent we need to ask this question. Does it seem like they know the teaching? Do their answers ring true to you? Do they seem confident and yet able to admit limitations or mistakes? How well do they walk the talk?

But we can get stuck here, evaluating the quality of a teacher, as if spiritual proficiency or authority is something that can be measured objectively. Perhaps we decide that we can only respect a teacher enough to ask for guidance from them if they are a celibate monk, are a lay teacher, meditate a great deal, act in a dignified manner, are a woman or a man, are morally impeccable, spout obscure teachings, are charismatic, or apparently free from any desire or difficulty.

It is not that these things don’t matter, but rather that a better question to ask is not, “Is this person a good teacher,” in some objective sense, but rather, “Are they a good teacher, or guide, for me?” This is something you have to learn by experience, by working with a teacher for a while.

Sometimes there is a strong resonance between teacher and student. For example, I knew the instant I heard her speak that Gyokuko was my teacher. She heard the question beneath my question. She understood me somehow, and therefore was able to give me effective and appropriate instruction. I never went awry in listening to her, and it built my faith in her guidance and in the practice.

Sometimes it is not so straightforward. Sometimes other aspects of the relationship with the teacher (which I discuss below) are more important or salient for someone. Someone may have a meaningful relationship with a teacher where the guidance is less personal, or where there is little explicit guidance.

Finally, regarding guidance, sometimes it is less about the brilliant response a teacher gives us than it is about the effectiveness of having to come up the question in the first place. Ever have the experience of being in a class, having a question, walking up to the teacher and asking it, and then going, “Oh, wait, I know the answer now”? Sometimes the very process of showing up, of expressing ourselves to another person, helps to clarify what is going on for us.


Much of this practice we do on our own. In the spirit of the Protestants, we need no intermediary between us and the Dharma, or between us and our Buddha nature.

However, if you never think you need encouragement, think again. If you try to do without it, you may be placing a heavy burden of expectation on yourself that you’d be better off without. No one will look down on you around here for needing some encouragement. In fact, it lets us know that you are working hard, pushing the edges of your comfort zone.

Throughout much of my practice, my meetings with Gyokuko involved telling her what I was working on, what I was experiencing, and asking her, “Am I going crazy? Am I way off base? Am I OK? Does this happen to other people? Does this sound like authentic practice?” Because of her own experience and her experience in working with lots of other people, she was (almost) always able to reassure me. My mind would be put at ease, and I could concentrate on the next step in practice.

Zen practice requires incredible spiritual courage and perseverance. We have to face our deepest fears. It is also sometimes runs counter to “common sense” and certainly to cultural norms – which say that when you encounter something or someone that makes you uncomfortable, you are supposed to get as far away from it/them as possible, as quickly as you can. In our practice we move toward such things, and pay close attention. Most of us find we need encouragement sooner or later to tread in such unfamiliar and scary territory.


Another aspect of Zen teachers, more subtle, is teacher as someone who bears witness to your practice – in a given moment, and/or over time. There is great value and power in stepping forward to allow someone to see us at what is undoubtedly our most vulnerable – when we are actively examining, questioning, building aspirations, facing doubts, and working on our life and practice.

Most of us (all of us?) have a deep and great fear that if people see who we really are, we will be rejected – everyone will know we don’t really belong, that we are fundamentally flawed. Or perhaps we fear that other people will be malicious and take advantage of us.

I was bullied for various reasons throughout middle school. I learned early on not to let the other kids know what I really wanted, or what I really cared about, because they were sure to take the opportunity to point out my failures, make fun of my preferences or mock my aspirations. I learned to hide my vulnerability and instead to project a persona of competence, confidence and cynicism.

When we gradually begin to show ourselves, we gain trust in others and build real confidence in ourselves. And show not just the bits we want to show, but the parts we can’t hide if someone watches us over time.

Also, it is valuable to be witnessed over time – to have a spiritual friend that gets to know your spiritual practice and life very well. S/he has context for your questions and struggles, as well as for your triumphs. Many of us get to the point that our teacher is the only one who will fully understand or appreciate the significance of particular aspects of our life and practice. For example, if you finally manage to start pausing before you speak so you can choose what’s best to say next (for some of us, a Herculean task), a teacher who knows you well will be able to celebrate with you. On the other hand you may get caught up in some repetitive – and ultimate destructive – karmic cycle and not even realize it, and a teacher who knows you well will be able to gently point the situation out before the cycle goes too far.


This is the aspect of Zen teachers that usually shows up in the old stories: teachers as challengers to their students, poking them with questions they can’t quite answer (yet), or pointing out their limitations. Outside of the old stories, this kind of challenge happens both consciously (on the part of the teacher) and unconsciously – but more often the latter.

Teacher as barrier or challenger is most often something that develops in a very close teacher-student relationship after a long period of time, typically many years. Beware of teachers that present themselves in this way early on, before they really know you and before you have built up a relationship of trust and understanding. This is potentially dangerous territory for both student and teacher. Students can get hurt, and teachers can get lost in an arrogant sense that their spiritual insight gives them access to a kind of omniscience when it comes to dealing with people’s spiritual life and practice.

At the same time teacher as challenger is a potentially transformative opportunity. If we can trust a teacher enough to invite him or her to give us honest feedback on our life and practice, we can address our blind spots. By definition, we can’t see them! We have the opportunity to turn the heat on our practice up a notch, and extend our mastery of our life.

A karmic resonance or intuitive match with a teacher may help her or him be insightful about us, but frankly it doesn’t take a Zen master or an intuitive genius to be able to see our weaknesses, our stuck places and our unresolved karma. If you think of any of your close relationships – significant others, parents, children, friends – you can probably think of things about their life and behavior that you’d like to be able to point out to them. Unfortunately – or fortunately – it is inappropriate and unhelpful to offer unsolicited criticism. For this reason, most Zen teachers will not offer potential charged “feedback” unless you have made it very clear, over time, that you 1) want to hear it, and 2) can handle it. In most cases you have to ask again and again in order to make the invitation strongly and unambiguously.

Sometimes teacher as barrier or challenge has nothing to do with the teacher’s intent: we gravitate toward a certain teacher because they trigger old patterns in us. Like being drawn again and again to the same kind of intimate romantic relationship, we may start to act out with our teacher our unresolved karma from parental, romantic or other relationships.

This is where the teacher’s training is very important! They must have done enough personal work, and have received enough tough training from their own teacher, to be able to recognize their own karmic reactions and know how to deal with them – in order to avoid getting involved in a destructive karmic dance with a student.

Ideally we get to act out our karma while the teacher remains more or less still. Then we have to watch how we dance. We try our demands, manipulations, guilt trips, drama, projection, attempts to please, whatever. They don’t work, but they also don’t backfire as they might in other kinds of relationships – for example, when another person reacts to our behavior with defensiveness or anger.

It is sometimes said it is the job of the teacher to “keep pulling the rug out from under us” until we no longer fall down – until we are standing in the unassailable place, not on any simple rug. My teacher did this by not-doing; in a sense she refused to offer me any rugs, at least not when I was being really demanding about it. I craved her approval and understanding, but could never get it when I really wanted it. I struggled with this for many years, until finally I truly didn’t need her – or anyone’s – understanding or approval any more. Not that I didn’t want and appreciate connections with others, I just didn’t need their approval to know I was fundamentally OK.

Pulling out the rug is especially important when it comes to spiritual insight; the teacher must keep testing the student, not allowing him/her to concretize an experience, get stuck in a concept or memory, or become arrogant or complacent because of a sense of spiritual accomplishment.

We may think it is the teacher that makes us doubt ourselves, but actually no one can instill doubts in us about something we have complete knowledge of/confidence in; when someone causes doubts to arise, they were already there. We should become grateful for the challenge, even when it is upsetting.

Formalizing a Teacher-Student Relationship

Think again of the people in your life, and how you’d like to be able to give them a little honest feedback about their stuck places and suffering. Actually doing so is rarely ever effective, is it? That is because someone must ask for such feedback first. They must be open to it, and ready for it. They need to have some idea what it is they are asking for, too.

That’s why, in order to establish a formal teacher-student relationship, you have to ask the teacher at least three different times. Each of these must be serious, considered, “asks.” The teacher may put up obstacles, make certain requirements first – for example, that you finish school, clean some particularly disruptive karma, demonstrate stability or just give it more time.

This kind of relationship takes time to form; a teacher must know a student. The student must have come forward to meet the teacher many times, and allowed her/himself to be seen.

The impetus for the relationship must come only from the student; the teacher must examine his or her own motivations to make sure s/he does not nurture any ulterior motives in taking on a student (ego, a sense of self-importance, hoping the student can be useful to the teacher, etc.). Teachers must always understand that someone’s practice is still ultimately their own; that the teacher’s view is limited; that a student has Buddha-nature and must always be respected, and that patience and gentleness are as important to the process as frankness and challenge. This does not by any means require that the teacher must always be nice and polite with us. Some of the necessary messages would not get across that way.

The necessity and significance of the student’s conscious willingness is enacted in the ceremony of discipleship (lay and monastic) when the teacher is about to cut off a small portion of hair on the crown of the student’s head, traditionally seen as the “root” of the small self. The teacher asks, somberly, three times: “This portion of hair is called the shura. I am going to cut it off. Only a Buddha can cut it off. Do you permit me to do so or not?” If the student doesn’t reply, with a determined voice, “Yes,” three times, the ceremony is not completed.

Start to Work with a Teacher

Of course, it’s not necessary to formalize a relationship with a teacher. You can work productively with someone for a short time, when you feel the need, or over a long time – even many years – without becoming a formal student.

How do you start? Just take the opportunities you have to spend time with and talk to a teacher. Go to sanzen/dokusan when it is offered, and make appointments to speak with the teacher in practice discussion. You may feel as if you benefit from someone’s teaching by practicing with them and listening to them teach in group settings, but in those situations the teacher is less likely to get to know you. To build a relationship for all the reasons mentioned above takes some one-on-one time.

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